Eyebrow Raising Book Covers

I like to read and I like public transit. So I spend a lot of time reading on buses, trains and subways. In general reading in public doesn’t cause problems, although when I was on a subway in New York, a group of teenage boys started pointing at me and smirking while I was making my way through Herman Melville’s most famous novel. “Look at that: Moby Dick,” one of them said. “Dick! Ha!” He was immediately corrected by a more erudite friend: “Don’t be stupid — it’s about a whale.”

In my experience though, there are certain books you’d be well advised to avoid associating yourself with company with, at least in broad daylight and in front of a mob. Generally these are books with provocative titles and covers. Despite the popular adage, most people are willing to judge a book by its cover. A few examples of books that have caused trouble for me (and on occasion my friends).

1. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is of course a modern classic with a very striking cover, appropriately reminiscent of a World War II poster. But I had a student once who said a man on the subway gave her the evil eye for reading it, possibly motivated by the swastika on the cover. (Or could it be that the man was an anti-Semite?) Spiegelman has a real gift for eye-catching images, as evidenced by the many controversial covers he’s done for the New Yorker, including this one.

2. Joseph Epstein’s Fabulous Small Jews, a very witty title especially if you know Karl Shapiro’s poem “Hospital” which Epstein is echoing: “This is the Oxford of all sicknesses. / Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews / And actresses whose legs were always news.” Still, strangers are very puzzled and put off by the title.

3. Peter Ward’s White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy toward Orientals in British Columbia, a standard and well-regarded academic history. My friend Dimitry once said that reading this on the subway made him feel like a skinhead. (The book’s cover can be seen here.)

4. Guy Davenport’s Eclogues: a masterpiece, a veritable storehouse of Davenport’s finest and cleanest prose. I was quite mystified by the odd looks it provoked, but that’s because I’m dense. The cover drawing, by Picasso, does have a homoerotic overtone. My love of Davenport, which is boundless, blinded me to how offensive some would find the cover.


5 thoughts on “Eyebrow Raising Book Covers

  1. While working as an English teacher in Japan, I made a point of keeping the cover of a history of World War II in the Pacific hidden. The artwork on the covers of my copies of “Paradise Lost” (Brueghel) and “Sons and Lovers” (Klimt) also inspired speculation by my Korean students (elementary age) that I might be Christian or possibly a pervert. A catalog of Lisa Yuskavages paintings shocked the delicate sensibilities of the law librarians I worked with.

  2. I was reading Against the Gods (a history of financial risk management) and got the evil eye from someone who, I think, took it as an anti-religious tract. The subtitle, which made the subject matter clearer, was much smaller than the main title.

  3. While my books only seldom go past my balcony, I know what to keep off the coffee table.

    My mother, visiting, did not see that I was reading Forbidden Knowledge – From Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck, she saw only, and said aloud, the last word in the title. “Yes, mother. That is one of six words in the title.”

    Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae is another one that was withdrawn to my bedroom when I was accused of not really reading it, but having it out only to appear intellectual.

    By the time I got to Charles Pellegrino’s Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, I consistently put it away when not in use. It is thoughtfully sandwiched between book titles of more obvious archaeological and Biblical content.

  4. Wow, this is weird. I just bought a book of Davenport essays and thought “Jeet Heer must know this essay “The Geography of the Imagination” and then flipping around the net I find this post. Weird!

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